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Mary Magdalene's Miracle

There is an old story that the tradition of painting Easter eggs red originated with Mary Magdalene. She boldly appeared before Emperor Tiberius and declared, “Christ is risen!” Tiberius gestured to an egg she held and said, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” Immediately, the egg turned red as a miraculous sign to show the truth of her testimony.

Mary Magdalene
Icon of Mary Magdalene and a red egg

This article first appeared in CBE International’s blog, Mutuality, on April 4, 2024



Could it be True?


The Bible describes Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus’s patrons, whom Jesus had healed of seven demons. She is named frequently in the Gospels as a witness of Jesus’s ministry, death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus commissioned her and other women to tell the brothers he had risen (John 20:17–18, Matthew 28:9–10), and women were with the apostles after the resurrection (Acts 1:14), received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1), and prophesied (Acts 2:15–17). So it is reasonable that Mary Magdalene, as a leader among Jesus’s followers, would also be prominent after his resurrection. We also know women were prominent in the early church because a second-century writer, Celsus, criticized it for appealing more to women and men, saying it attracted only “the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.”[i]


The second-century theologian Tertullian stated that Emperor Tiberius received a report of Jesus’s life and death and decided in favour of Christ’s divinity.[ii] As a woman of wealth and status, Mary Magdalene would have been able to travel freely and perhaps even give testimony before the emperor. In the third century, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that Tiberius knew from Pilate about the rumours that Christ had risen and “did not find anything preposterous in Christ’s teaching.” He specifically credited Mary Magdalene’s preaching to Tiberius for his proposal to the Senate that they “include Christ in the pantheon of Roman gods.”[iii]


So, while we will likely never know if the story of Mary Magdalene’s evangelism in Rome is true, it is consistent with biblical references to her, with records of women being prominent in the early church, and with the writing of early historians.


Why are Many Western Christians Unaware of the Story of Mary Magdalene's Miracle?


While this story is well-known to Eastern Orthodox Christians, a combination of factors may make it less familiar among Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians.


It Shows a Woman in a Leadership Role


The Bible records that Mary Magdalene was a devout disciple and that Jesus commissioned her to tell the brothers he had risen; the Bible does not record Mary Magdalene’s mission to Rome. That said, the Bible does not describe the missionary journeys of many of the apostles. Records of where the twelve evangelized or how they died come from ancient texts or traditions that do not have the authority of the canon of the Bible. Some ancient texts did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the Bible but were still trusted by early Christians as helpful.[iv]


Additionally, Ally Kateusz has provided examples of ancient manuscripts that were altered or redacted to remove references to women as priests or performing liturgical roles.[v] While the story of this miracle is not in the Bible, Western Christians might observe that it’s been largely lost or hidden more than the traditional stories of male apostles. It is possible that texts relating Mary Magdalene’s evangelism have been redacted or excluded at times because they did not fit with church orthodoxy.


It's an Eastern Tradition


Eastern traditions indicate that Mary Magdalene was a devout disciple and an apostle who evangelized in Rome and later to Alexandria and Ephesus. These traditions also say that she is the Mary whom Paul greets in Romans 16:6[vi].


However, as early as the sixth century, Pope Gregory I confirmed the Roman Catholic teaching that there was one composite Mary, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinful woman of Luke 7. The three women became one prostitute or penitent sinner.[vii] That image has grabbed the imaginations of artists, moviemakers, writers, preachers, and theologians, and the Western church resisted any challenge to this portrayal for several centuries thereafter. For example, in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote that Mary Magdalene was a prophet and an apostle to the apostles.[viii] The Catholic Church excommunicated Aquinas posthumously in 1277, though in 1324 it declared him a saint.[ix] In 1517, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples argued against the centuries-old Roman Catholic teaching of the composite Mary as a repentant whore; he was condemned by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne.[x]


Protestants brought the idea of Mary Magdalene as a sexual sinner from the Catholic tradition, though some Reformers did see Mary Magdalene as an apostle. As Reformers dismantled abbeys and saints, including Mary Magdalene, they reduced models of female spiritual leadership and channels for women in ministry.


“The demotion of the Virgin Mary and the saints meant that women all but disappeared from church sanctuaries. This process symbolized to women that their functions within the official church were close to nonexistent. They were to minister to their own children and young servants within the domestic setting”[xi].

In recent decades, the Roman Catholic church has reversed its view on the composite Mary. Martha’s sister is now honoured on the same day as Martha and Lazarus.[xii] The liturgical reading on the day that honours Mary Magdalene has been changed from the sinful woman (Luke 7) to the first to see the risen Christ (John 20). In 2016, Pope Francis acknowledged Mary Magdalene as an apostle to the apostles and raised her memorial day to a feast day, on the same level as those of the male apostles.[xiii] The Church now provides a feast day mass script that describes Mary Magdalene as a disciple and apostle.[xiv]


Painted Eggs Have Multiple Origins


Archaeologists have found evidence of people decorating eggs since ancient times,[xv] but Orthodox Christians in Mesopotamia, Syria, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Greece began the tradition of painting eggs specifically for Easter.[xvi] These cultures also typically hold the Eastern Orthodox view that Mary Magdalene testified before the emperor and performed the miracle of the red egg.

 

Western Christians have continued the Easter egg decorating tradition without reference to its Eastern origins or to Mary Magdalene’s miracle. We may relate the egg to Christ’s tomb, the red to Christ’s blood, and cracking open the egg to the tomb’s opening at his resurrection. We may relate the Easter egg to the symbolic egg on the Jewish Passover table. We may relate it to the Roman Catholic tradition of clearing the house of sweets, including eggs, for Lent and enjoying them again on Easter morning. These views of the origin of painting eggs at Easter may be valid, but they also conveniently avoid telling a controversial story about Mary Magdalene’s miracle.


 Why Does it Matter That We Know the Story of Mary Magdalene's Miracle?


What if Mary Magdalene did appear before the Roman Emperor, testified that Jesus rose, and performed a miracle? What if this was the story we told every year to explain the tradition of Easter eggs? Would it mean Mary Magdalene was not only an apostle to the male apostles, but an apostle to the emperor? Would it change our view of women teaching and preaching before men and women in the early church? Would it show Christians today that God has endorsed women evangelists and preachers since the first century?


This article first appeared in CBE International’s blog, Mutuality, on April 4, 2024



 

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor


 

Sources:


[i] “Contra Celsum, Book III, Chapter 44,” trans. Frederick Crombie, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04163.htm


[ii] “Apology of Tertullian, Chapter 5,” trans. S. Thelwall, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm


[iii] Archimandrite Makary (Veretennikov), “Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene,” trans. Nun Cornelia (Rees), Orthodox Christianity, https://orthochristian.com/122857.html. First published in Alpha and Omega Magazine, August 4, 2022, https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Makarij_Veretennikov/svjataja-ravnoapostolnaja-marija-magdalina/.


[iv] Ryan Leasure, “What Biblical Books Are Included in the Earliest Canonical Lists?” Crossexamined, August 4, 2019, https://crossexamined.org/what-biblical-books-are-included-in-the-earliest-canonical-lists/


[v] Alley Kateusz, “More Collyridian Déjà vu,” in Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), Creative Commons Open Access https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-11111-3 .


[vi] Archimandrite Makary, “Mary Magdalene.”


[vii] Bill Tammeus, “Author Unravels the Tangled Identity of Mary Magdalene”, National Catholic Reporter, July 10, 2019, https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/book-reviews/author-unravels-tangled-identity-mary-magdelene.


[viii] Brandon L. Wanless, “Apostle to the Apostles,” Thomistica, July 22, 2019, https://thomistica.net/posts/tag/Mary+Magdalene.


[ix] “St. Thomas Aquinas,” The Basics of Philosophy, accessed April 3, 2024, https://www.philosophybasics.com/philosophers_aquinas.html.


[x] Jane Schaberg, “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore,” Bible Review, October 1992, https://library.biblicalarchaeology.org/article/how-mary-magdalene-became-a-whore/.


[xi] Susan Karant-Nunn, “Martin Luther, Women and Womankind,” L’Historie, April 14, 2017, https://www.lhistoire.fr/english-version/martin-luther-women-and-womankind.


[xii] “Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus,” Liturgical Year and Calendar, United States Conference of Bishops, accessed April 3, 2024, https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year-and-calendar/saints-martha-mary-and-lazarus.


[xiii] “St. Mary Magdalene, Disciple of the Lord,” Vatican News, July 22, 2016, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/07/22/st–mary-magdalene–disciple-of-the-lord-.html.


[xiv] Ellie Harty, “Mary Magdalene with (Finally) Her Own Feast Day, July 22,” The Table, Women’s Ordination, July 17, 2018, https://www.womensordination.org/blog/2018/07/17/mary-magdalene-with-finally-her-own-feast-day-july-22/.


[xv] “Egg Decorating,” Wikipedia, accessed April 3, 2024, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_decorating.


[xvi] Stephanie Hall, “The Ancient Art of Decorating Eggs,” Folklife Today: American Folklife Center and Veterans History Project, Library of Congress Blogs, April 6, 2017, https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/04/decorating-eggs.


 



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